Soyuz Takes First Korean Into Space

APSouth Korea's first astronaut, Yi So-yeon, left, speaking with commander Sergei Volkov prior to Tuesday's launch.
BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan -- A Russian capsule carrying two cosmonauts and Korea's first astronaut blasted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome Tuesday, en route to the international space station.

The Soyuz TMA-12 craft lifted off on time, roaring into the evening skies over Kazakhstan's barren steppes before turning down range and entering its preliminary orbit about 10 minutes later.

South Korean bioengineer Yi So-yeon, 29, and cosmonauts Oleg Kononenko and Sergei Volkov will spend two days in the cramped capsule before docking at the orbiting station. It's the first space flight for all three, including Volkov, the son of a decorated Soviet-era cosmonaut.

Live footage broadcast from inside the capsule showed Yi smiling, waving and giving the thumbs-up sign.

"Everything is in order," Volkov said.

The U.S. space agency NASA said Yi was the world's youngest-ever female astronaut.

Hundreds of Korean, Russian and U.S. officials, relatives and other onlookers watched, mostly in silence, as the rocket climbed slowly over the launch pad. Yi's mother, Jung Kum-suk, screamed, then collapsed into the arms of her husband, and four medics in jumpsuits rushed to help her.

"I have no religion, but I pray for the success of the flight," said Ko San, the Korean scientist who was Yi's backup for the launch.

Colonel Ki Young Chung, a Korean air force flight surgeon monitoring Yi, said the launch was an amazing event for Korea.

Dmitry Lovetsky / AP
The Soyuz booster and capsule

"It's our first step to get to space. I'm proud of my country and proud of my duty as a doctor for the Soyuz flight," he said.

Ahead of the launch, Yi told cheering Russian and Korean well-wishers, including her family, that she felt great, as she was escorted to the launch facility. She has expressed hope that her historic journey will encourage the reunification of the divided Korean peninsula.

Alexander Volkov, a veteran cosmonaut from many Soviet and Russian space flights, said earlier that he had mixed feelings as he said farewell to his son, Sergei.

"It's hard for me because I know what is ahead for them, and I know how hard it is," he said.

The South Korean government has a $20 million deal with Russia to co-sponsor the flight in exchange for Yi's trip. She was among 36,000 applicants in a 2006 nationwide competition, and plans to conduct 18 scientific experiments during her nine days on the space station.

She was originally chosen as a backup to Ko, an expert in artificial intelligence. But he was replaced by Yi in March after Russian officials accused him of the unauthorized removal of technical manuals from the Star City cosmonaut training center near Moscow.

The lengthy launch preparations are steeped in traditions that have evolved since Yury Gagarin became the first man to travel to space in 1961. Space travelers always stay in the guarded Cosmonaut Hotel in the city of Baikonur and travel to the cosmodrome in a bus with a blue stripe, followed by a backup van with a yellow stripe. On Monday night, the crew watched "White Sun of the Desert," the classic Soviet film set in the early 1920s.

Before they left their rooms Tuesday, they signed their names on their doors, observed a minute of silence together and toasted one another with champagne. After returning to Earth, every cosmonaut since Gagarin has planted a tree on the banks of the Syr Darya River, a short walk from the hotel.

The two Volkovs have said little publicly about being part of the first father-son space traveler team.

The elder Volkov logged 391 days in space on three separate missions in the 1980s and early 1990s. On his last trip, he left Earth as a Soviet citizen and returned as a citizen of the Russian Federation, after the Soviet Union's breakup.